John Winsor's 'Six Steps To Finding Inspiration'


Let's close out this "let's see what other people have to say about branding" week with this awesome post from John Winsor:

"In this quickly changing environment in which we live today, where customers are acquiring the tools to become producers, especially of media, companies that get involved and thrive on the inspiration that the market provides them, can interpret it into something real. Such companies have ingrained this approach into the philosophy of their brands – it goes deeper than any individual or hired agency.

"These companies all share some common attributes based on good listening to their key voices and understanding how to leverage the networks that exist in their markets. Companies that strategically find inspiration time after time – from Apple to Nike – follow some of the same steps. They include:

Be Curious – Have you ever spent time with someone who always knows what the next trend will be? The biggest factor is usually their sense of curiosity. Companies, as well as people, can be curious. The problem is that static systems stifle curiosity. Reintroduce curiosity into your company by changing the way you’re looking at the world to a more dynamic perspective. Instead of focusing on controlling the outcome when developing new product and marketing ideas, focus instead on thinking in dynamic terms and accepting many possible outcomes. Such an outlook, in and of itself, will go a long way in making your team more curious.

Be Keenly Aware – Part of finding inspiration is being keenly aware of subtle changes in your surroundings. Companies that are good at it spend a lot of time deep in their market’s network trying to find inspiration. Only by getting out of the office and living within the network participants’ worlds will you really be able to notice the subtle changes that magnify inspiration.

Do you know Jake Burton? What makes Burton Snowboards so dominant in their market is that they are intimate with every aspect of the marketplace, and know what network to tap into to find inspiration for new product and marketing efforts. As we discussed, at Burton it starts at the top, and that means that Jake is snowboarding 100 days a year. When your CEO is that well connected to the marketplace and keenly aware of the subtleties of the market, always knowing where to find inspiration, it’s hard for your competitors to keep up.

Use Your Imagination – I’m always amazed by the imaginations of my two little boys. They really started talking around Halloween last year. One of the first full sentences both of them could say was, “Oh, no! Ghost coming! Scary!” After saying it they would run around the house, laughing and laughing. One of the things that I am most struck by with small children around the house is that we, as adults, have lost our imaginations. The world is a serious place, whether it’s business, world affairs, the economy or, for that matter, our entertainment. Companies can take things way too seriously.

It seems that in today’s business environment, recovering from a recession, there is a lot of underlying stress making everyone more serious. One of the key ingredients to finding inspiration is to have an active imagination. We all have imaginations but, like a muscle, you’ve got to use it or lose it. Turn on your imagination by doing creative things. Get your team together and have some fun. Do things that encourage people to find inspiration through the use of “out of the box” thinking. When you support this kind of thinking by not criticizing it, new inspiration will really start to flow.

Have A Human Touch – I’ve been on some explorations with clients where some team members are so focused on accomplishing the task at hand that they act more like robots than humans. When looking for inspiration it’s essential that you do so with a human touch. When you’re out trying to explore newly formed network connections, you’ve first got to gain the trust of those in the network. If you’re only there to complete your business task, it’s obvious to others and doesn’t engender trust at all. Being human means taking the time to really care about the people from whom you’re trying to gain the inspiration that you’re after. That requires sharing a part of yourself. Being more human means being more vulnerable, and that’s a very hard thing to do – especially in the context of business.

Be Patient – The most important thing to remember about finding inspiration is that it’s a journey with no beginning or end. Like anything else, most of us can’t find real inspiration the first time we try: the first time you see someone, you’re not going to ask him or her to marry you, are you? Well, I guess it does happen… but that’s pure chance. Finding true inspiration is something that you’ve got to spend every day doing, a little at a time. Probably the most important way to make finding inspiration happen is by integrating it into your daily schedule. Read magazines you don’t usually read, go to new restaurants, stay in a different hotel each time you travel, and most importantly, talk to new people. It’s one step at a time.

Always Stay Connected – Apple is firmly connected to the creative graphics community, Nike has a support system of athletes, and Patagonia is connected with outdoor adventurers. Who are you connected with? Are you networked intimately enough to your group of trend translators that you can call or email at any time to explore a couple of new ideas? Do you know them well enough that if they don’t know where to find the inspiration you’re looking for, they will turn you on to their network? Not only are Apple, Nike, and Patagonia connected, but they have become a vital part of their network’s community, allowing them to consistently find inspiration for both products and marketing much faster than their competitors."

I wish I had something to add... but I really don't. This is one of those "amen" posts you just want to read and nod to.


Saying NO to 'Average'.


Sometimes, Seth Godin is dead-on. Sometimes, he isn't. Lately, he's been posting some pretty cool stuff on his blog. This piece speaks to one of my favorite BrandBuilder themes: Saying no to average. Here's his post:

"One of my favorite conversations goes like this.

"Oh, by the way, I read your book Purple Cow. I liked it a lot. I even underlined some paragraphs."

"Thanks!" I say. Underlining is the goal of people in my line of work.

"I can imagine that it's really helpful to a lot of people. Unfortunately, in my [business/organization/line of work], most of what you write about doesn't really work."

The reason it's such a good conversation is that people in every possible line of work have managed to tell me that the ideas don't apply to them... and that gives me a chance to ask them more details about what they do--and within a minute or two, we're both jumping up and down, excited with the possibilities of how it does work in their line of work. Ministers, freelance photographers, real estate agents, middle managers, web site marketers--doesn't matter, it always seems to come down to one thing:

Say no to being average.

This morning, Bradley was explaining to me that it couldn't work in his profession as a freelance writer. It seems that almost all the clients want average stuff. Which no surprise, since average is, by definition, the stuff most people want. I asked, "Are there any writers in your field who you hate because they get paid way too much compared to your perception of the effort they put in and the talent they have?"

"Sure," he said, feeling a little sheepish about being annoyed by their success.

"And how do they get those gigs?"

It's because they stand for something. Because they are at the edges. Because if an editor wants a 'Bob-Jones-type' article, she has to call Bob Jones for it... and pay Bob's fees. Bob would fail if he did average work for average editors just to make a living. But by turning down the average stuff and insisting on standing for something on the edge, he profits. By challenging his clients to run stuff that makes them nervous (and then having them discover that it's great), he profits.

This is scary. It's really scary to turn down most (the average) of what comes your way and hold out for the remarkable opportunities. Scary to quit your job at an average company doing average work just because you know that if you stay, you'll end up just like them. Scary to go way out on an edge and intentionally make what you do unattractive to some.

Which is why it's such a great opportunity."

Right on. The trick is to understand that reputations take a while to grow. If you're a photographer, a writer, a web designer, a massage therapist or a fitness coach, it is going to take longer to become known as THE (insert your profession here) than, say... if you're a store or a bank. The smaller the business, the smaller the exposure. (Yes, that's changing, but it is still the reality in most markets.) It takes time. If you can afford to take the time, if you have the courage to stick to your convictions and grow as slowly as you need to, do it. Don't compromise.

All you have is your reputation. Your brand. The promise of what you stand for. Produce average work, and you will become known as the "average" (insert profession or business type here). Believe me, you dont' want to be an average anything.

You owe it to yourself not to be.

If you lose jobs or clients as a result, so be it. You have plenty of average competitors out there. Let them fight over the lousy projects. Focus on the ones that you will absolutely knock out. The ones that allow you and your clients to shine. The ones you would want to work on - even for free - just because they're that good.

Get off the crowded blue train and carve your own path.


Branding for Energy Companies?


Evan (Orange Coat / Orange Yeti) pointed me to a pretty interesting article about energy companies and branding on the Nobrainer's Hate Capacitor blog. Here's the premise:

"In the debates over technology for energy, the final yardstick is usually the actual cost to produce a unit of electricity. The inherent assumption is that the consumer will choose the electricity that costs the least. If that idea were applied to food, alcohol, clothing, or even water, the assumption is proven horribly incorrect. Why is it people are convinced to over-pay for Starbucks, or Pepsi, or Aquafina — and do so happily — but we assume that the same cannot be true in the electricity markets?

"To mind, there are two issues that need to be addressed. Many of us are not exactly subjected to open markets, from which we can choose from whom we purchase our electricity. Secondly, electricity doesn’t carry a brand very well.

"Let’s creatively solve both problems simultaneously. Concerned parties may argue that removal of price caps will lead to increased prices across the board, thus hurting everyone and regressively hurting the poor. Or they’ll argue that consumers will merely switch to the cheapest option (presumably dirty coal) which would be an environmental nightmare. This of course is the crux of our energy debate: cost vs. cleanliness."
Click here to see a cool comparative table designed to help consumers choose the right company and service. (It's a good idea.)

"Once the consumer is able to make the right choice, it’s up to the marketers to create brands and make the consumer make the right choice. For example, right now I can opt to purchase wind power at a net price increase of about 50%. At least two problems remain: I found this information on my own and not because someone marketed it to me, and I’m not convinced that I should pay a 50% markup, even though I pay huge markups all over the place otherwise. I lied, there’s one problem: marketing — or a lack thereof.

"Part of the marketing is branding. The non-minimum paying consumer wants, nay needs to be able to show off his or her choice. This may be done by simply putting a sign in the window, or a bumper sticker on the car. Let the consumer declare “I BUY BIG GREEN ENERGY.”

"What’s more, the marketers need to make being green more than being environmentally aware. Make us want to do it because it’s cool. Don’t tell us it’s cool; show us it’s cool. Make guys think they will get laid.

"Have a commercial with the Super Bowl winning quarterback surrounded by scantily clad women read:

"I buy my electricity from Big Green. It’s a little more expensive, but it’s worth it for the future. Plus chicks dig it."

"Can we at least agree that guys will do it if they believe it leads to sex?

"Obviously I’m being a bit facetious, but I truly believe that we can be convinced to pay higher energy prices. What’s keeping us from it?"
I was just thinking... Can energy companies actually be sexy? Absolutely. (And it's genius.)

Basically, here are the three platforms of energy company branding:

- Reliability: "We promise less outages than anyone else, and/or the fastest response time of any company in the unlikely event of an outage. If we can't get your power restored in x hours, we'll have one of our service crews come to your home or office and perform a stripapologygram for you. (No tipping required.)

- Greenkarmatude: "We love trees, fishies, black bears and critters so much that our energy actually pumps clean air right from the power lines back into the ambient air and actually restores the ozone layer. Studies also show that our electricity cuts pollution and smog by 17.8%, and turns the sky in our service areas two whole cleaner shades of blue. As a bonus, our special super-energized blend of clean energy and good karma actually makes butterflies more colorful and kittens 32% cuter than normal. Isn't it about time an energy company actually helped the environment instead of destroying it? Right on."

- Value - The Kilowatt Holy Grail: "Sure, our energy costs are 20% higher than XYZ, but our customers are healthier, smarter, hipper, happier, live longer, and get swarmed by hotties every time they go out in public. Without dieting, most of our customers have reported an average annual weight loss of 2lbs for every 40 megawatt hours, and a 7% increase in bone density (especially in women ages 45 and up) for every 100 megawatt hours. In 2005, 32% of our customers also reported clearer skin, a reduction in wrinkles, larger, perkier breasts in women, and reduced hair loss in men after just six months of switching to our energy service. If that isn't worth an extra 20% on your bill, I don't know what is."

iPod. Diet Coke. Diesel Jeans. Volkswagen. Revlon. Nike. Axe. Victoria's Secret. Gucci. Your energy company? Why not.

All joking aside, perhaps the time has come for a new business and regulatory model when it comes to energy companies? I don't think it would be far-fetched to envision energy company brand advocates if the product, company philosophy and marketing all delivered on something that legions of customers could find themselves being passionate about.

Think about it. We get passionate about cars. About Mp3 players. About computers. About shoes. About underwear, cooking pots and even toothpaste. Is energy really that different?

Of course not.

People are keen on self expression. Being able to declare that you belong to a clean energy movement, that you are one of millions of energy customer revolutionaries, that your identity is tied to that of an energy company that promises to be to the energy market what Apple was to the PC world is a powerful and very realistic premise. Could an energy company trigger a sweeping sociocultural movement? A cultural and economic milestone like the introduction of iPod or MTV or Google? You bet.

I like to think about that kind of possibility as a giant breath of fresh air.

In this climate of rising energy costs, global warming, corporate malfeasance and increasing consumer demand, it shouldn't be a question of if, but rather of when.


TheBrandBuilder is back in the Top 25 world!!!


So... our ranking in the Technorati top Branding blogs kind of slipped to the low 30's several months ago (sigh), but we just made the Viral Marketing's Top 25 Marketing blogs!!!! The list is based on Alexa's ratings.

All together now: "Huzzah!"

Thanks to Coolzor for the heads-up.

Considering who is on that list, I am so beyond honored to be in such good company that I can't even think of something clever to say about the whole thing.

(And no, I don't mind being dead last on that list, either. - Whew. Just made the cut!) Listen up, kids, because this is important: Top 25 lists are a whole lot easier to get into than Top 10 lists.

(You can quote me on that.)

Here's the damage:

1 - Seth's Blog
2 - Guy Kawasaki
3 - Gaping Void
4 - Duct Tape Marketing
5 - Creating Passionate Users
6 - Marketing Shift
7 - HorsePigCow
8 - Brand Autopsy
9 - Church of the Customer
10 - What's Next
11 - Coolzor
12 - Emergence Marketing
13 - Jaffe Juice
14 - Marketing Roadmaps
15 - Beyond Madison Avenue
16 - Diva Marketing
17 - Jack Yan
18 - Johnnie Moore's Weblog
19 - What's Your Brand Mantra
20 - Marketing Begins At Home
21 - Decker Marketing
22 - Being Reasonable
23 - The Origin of Brands
24 - Crossroads Dispatches
25 - The Brand Builder Blog

Wow. I feel like I've actually accomplished something today. :)

Okay... almost.

Note: Sorry about the re-post. The image was so HUGE it was screwing up my page. Blogger is having hiccups this week.


Curing the Monday Blues


Okay. Reality check. You can't be Mr. Innovator every day. You can't be 100% brand you every day. Every once in a while, even if you love what you do for a living, you're going to get to work and wish you could take the day off and... go ride a bike. Or go surf. Or just stay home and read a good book. Whatever. The point is that some days, no matter how dedicated to your job you may be, no matter how professional you are, you aren't exactly motivated or inspired to be your awesome self and give every moment of your day the usual 110%.

What should you do when those days come to smack you in the back of the head? (Other than treating yourself and a co-worker to a particularly cool lunch?)

Dave Lorenzo has a pretty decent suggestion:

"Think of an area of your work that needs improvement. Are you always 15 minutes late to work? Do you make small mistakes when working on detail-oriented assignments? Are your colleagues not getting the information they need from you?

Whatever it is, spend today (and the week to come) focusing your effort on doing a great job in that area. Get to bed half an hour earlier, and get up on time. Not having to rush in the morning gives you a sense of peace and control. Check and double-check your work. It doesn’t take long, and you end up saving a lot of time in the long run. Make the calls you need to make to communicate about your project. It only takes a minute, and it introduces a bit of variety and social interaction into your day.

If you’ve been falling slightly short in a particular area for a while now, you may feel that it doesn’t matter anymore and no one notices or cares. This is not at all true. When the person who always comes in late suddenly starts arriving on time, people do notice. If your work is suddenly consistently free of errors, business partners notice and appreciate it. When your colleagues start hearing from you regularly and getting what they need, their opinion of you improves and they enjoy working with you more. All these things help build your reputation and establish your personal brand."

In other words, just find something that you could be doing better, and focus on fixing it. Take some extra time to identify one problem, and take care of it. It could be something as simple as tweaking your schedule, or cleaning up your active files folder, or taking a few hours to completely unclutter your workspace (that means your computer's files as well). Return all of the calls you didn't get a chance to last week. Take on a very small project you've been putting off, and spend all day working exclusively on it.

It could also be putting all of your work aside and helping a colleague work on a project that has nothing to do with you. Just to do something different. Just to learn something new. Just to do a good deed. (Remember good deeds? They're invigorating.)

You can kill two birds with one stone: a) turn a less than stellar day around by accomplishing something productive that you hadn't anticipated, and b) earning some extra style points in the process.

And remember: Days like this aren't the norm. Things will get back to normal before you know it.

Even when you don't feel like it, every day can be extraordinary. (Or at least memorable.)

Have fun. Even on blue Mondays. ;)


Marketing Remix


Thanks to Guy for the heads-up on this great piece by JJ Sviokla and Antony Paioni on what's happening to the four P's of Marketing:

"The entire science of marketing has been developed to understand who buys, why they buy, and how they buy. The traditional marketing mix is made up of product, place, promotion, price -- all consistent with a positioning for the product or service. The power of this model was to point out the key tools that firms have to bring their product or service to market successfully.

Each of these concepts becomes much more complex and diffuse in this new world. "Place" is not so obvious, for the place where people shop is now a combination of physical and informational environments.

Promotion is not so clear, because while formal, outbound efforts like advertising and couponing will continue, marketers must also acknowledge the self-organized nature of user-defined ratings of products and services. These are influential and out of control of the marketer. It is now much more about word of mouth -- turbocharged by peer-to-peer communications like the phone and the internet.

Product is still vital, but the service wrappers around product, and the ability to have that product be easy to purchase is more critical than ever.

Lastly, price is much more dynamic than it used to be. Price comparisons are much more transparent than just a few years ago, and getting more so. In many markets, from books to used cars, the influence of the used market is completely changing the pricing dynamics -- with new products competing with used substitutes that can be from 25% to 99% cheaper than their new alternatives.

What's a poor marketer to do? Well, it is time to do a remix of the marketing mix. Just as in any remix, the old notions are still there, and underlie the remix, but the new layer on top is hip, and makes the old song come alive again -- with a new audience, new buzz, and new power."

Interesting stuff. Read the entire thing here.


How Routine Kills Brands


"The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow."

- William Pollard.

That's worth framing and hanging in every meeting room from Portland to Tahiti (via Paris).

Thanks to Tom Asacker for digging that one up today, and for his fantastic post on the very topic I wanted to explore today: What traps should exciting new companies be on the lookout for? As you can imagine, this post was going to be long. (Or at least long-ish.) Thanks to Tom's impeccable timing, you won't have to suffer through another endless essay. (See? Your good deeds are already starting to pay off.)

Check this out (again, from Tom's post):

"Over time, unchanging relationships can turn into shackles that limit an organization's flexibility and lock it into active inertia. Established relationships with customers can prevent firms from responding effectively to changes in technology, regulations, or consumer preferences."
- Donald Sull (Revival of the Fittest: Why Good Companies Go Bad an How Great Managers Remake Them.)

So... your new mission every day is to keep it fresh. That's it. Whether you're in the business of designing ads, repairing engines, selling shoes or answering calls from angry customers, don't ever, ever, ever let routine set in. Try different things. Learn something new from every customer. From every sale. From every design challenge. From every product launch. From every commercial you hear on the radio. From every movie you catch on cable. From the games your kids play. From magazines you've never picked up.

Keep it fresh.

Ad go read Tom's full post. It's very good.

Have a great weekend, everyone.


Marcy's Gift


Marcy Jarvis is a very cool writer, poet, artist, and friend. She just sent me a copy of her latest collection of poems (Advice) and it's just wonderful. It's the second book she's sent me, and both sit on my coffee table right now. (And probably will for a very, very long time.)

One of my favorite things about the book is that almost every illustration that she didn't create herself (every poem has its own) comes from friends Marcy has made on Buzznet. (Buzznet is an online community very much like Flickr... only a little tighter. It's kind of like a Mac vs. PC or Ford vs. Chevy thing, if that makes any sense. They're both good.) Anyway. Marcy's poetry is inspired by blogs and photoblogs... which is fascinating to me. Blog-inspired-poetry. How cool is that?

So... Marcy, thanks for including some of my work in your book, thanks for the autographed copy, thanks for actually printing that crazy bio, and thanks for being such a wonderful friend, inspiration and contributor to our little world.

Finding your book in my mailbox really made my day. :)


Confidence - Part II


Yesterday's post (Leaps Of Faith) was kind of a prelude for today. As a matter of fact, I want to start with this comment, left yesterday by Gavin Heaton. (If you haven't been by his blog, by the way, you're missing out. If anything, go there and find out why it's called "Servant Of Chaos". Cool stuff.) Here it is:

"You may have great ideas, but you also need others to believe in them, and to support them when you face hard times (and you will). Often competition comes not from outside your organisation, but from within. You may have the drive and the ideas, but you also need your friends and enemies to ensure success."

Yep. You can have all the confidence in the word in yourself, but it's a whole lot easier when you have a core group of people around you who also have confidence in you... and your success. They could be parents. They could be a spouse. A sibling. A best friend. A mentor. Someone you've never met but have spoken with via email.

The more you espect the person, the more their confidence in you will strengthen your resolve.

I'll give you a weird little example of the dynamics of cnfidence-building, but first, I have to set this up for you. There is a 7.3 mile loop of road just outside of Greenville's city limits that serves an industrial center and small airport, called the Donaldson Center. Every spring, as soon as daylight savings comes around, hundreds of cyclists meet on that strip of pavement every Tuesday evening to race.

Not just to race, but to race each other. (Yes, there is a difference.)

Every Tuesday, these fine folks gut it out for 4-6 insanely fast laps around this hilly, windy, wretched piece of road. The pavement is so rough and pitted that bike bottles routinely get rattled right out of their cages. In the middle of Summer, the heat is so thick that it chokes you and makes your eyeballs burn. Some days, the wind is so strong that it throws riders into each other and bends the trees amost sideways.

Anyway. There are three types of riders you'll run into in bike races:

1. The ones who fall out. (They either aren't ready to compete at that level, or they couldn't gut it out when it mattered.) Many of them come back week after week until they stop getting dropped. Those eventually become one of the next two types of racers:

2. The ones who stay in the peloton (the pack) from start to finish. For them, it's all about staying in the draft (where you don't have to pedal as hard and where it's safe). Where other people do most of the work. Where you can sit safely for the entire race and finish with everyone else.

3. The ones who attack. The ones who challenge. The ones who sprint away again and again and again... until other riders either get tired of chasing them down, or become to tired to do so.

Now... you can already see where I am going with this metaphor, so I can probably stop right there.

What could be clearer than a few hundred men and women on bikes, racing as hard as they can against each other? Some fall short. Some play it safe. Some surge on ahead and push the limits of the group as a whole.

Yeah. Just like Lance.

Everyone who shows up to race already has a lot of confidence in their skills. No question. But consider the amount of confidence it takes for those rare few riders to attack again and again. To sprint off on their own. To push their own wind. To choose their own speed. To work harder than anyone else. To risk shredding their legs early and have no shot at winning the race as a result. To risk getting dropped, even, if they push too hard.

I can tell you one thing about these brave souls, and it's this: Being two hundred yards ahead of the peloton feels good. Knowing that everyone back there is hurting at least as much as you are feels good. Knowing that no on back there wants to take on the responsibility of trying to catch up feels good.

Setting the pace feels good.

Winning feels good.

Being the best feels good.

Having fifty or so of the state's best riders frown every time they see you show up before the race start every week feels good. It's exactly the kind of reinforcement that Gavin talks about in his comment. (Sometimes, your competition's reaction and performance are just as important to confidence as a friendly pat on the back from someone who is actually in your corner.) Earning your competitor's ire is always fun, but earning their respect is even better. That's when you know you've arrived.

Earning your competitors' respect, your family's, your friends', your customers', and your employees' respect feels really, really good.

The reality is this (and I've seen it everywhere - the military, school, business, sports, art, love, politics, medicine... everywhere): Not everyone has the confidence to answer the call of a worthy challenge when it comes. Not everyone has the confidence to lead the pack. Not everyone has the confidence to challenge it. Not everyone has the confidence to risk embarrassing themselves if they fail.

Not everyone has the confidence to make sure failure truly isn't an option.

(And not everyone has the confidence to have that much damn fun pushing the limits of their art.)

Again, confidence manifests itself in innovation, in entrepreneurship, in design, in advertising, in marketing, in politics, in sports, in philosophy, in operating rooms, on battlefields and in boardrooms all over the world in one unmistakable trait: Leadership.

Leadership isn't about bars on your sleeves or imposing little letters next to your name. Leadership is a trait. It's a behavior. It's an inner nature.

It's confidence in action.

Now, think about this: In your work, what kind of rider are you?

In your market, what kind of rider is your company?

If the next ten years are a race, who do you think is going to win, and how are they (or you) going to win it? By sitting in the pack or by leading it when the time is right?

Do you want to be Lance Armstrong, or do you want to be one of the other guys whose names you'll never know?

Food for thought. :)

Push your limits. You'll be surprised how elastic they really are,


Leaps of Faith


Starting a business. Investing in a new venture. Launching a new product. Greenlighting a new marketing campaign. Hiring a new key team member. Partnering with another company. Designing a new website. Updating an old logo. Opening a new location. Telling the truth. Saying no when you know you should. Doing the right thing, just because it is.

These are all leaps of faith.

The entrepreneurial spirit is nothing without leaps of faith. Especially when it comes to creating not just new businesses, but new types of business.

For whatever reason, I keep running into courageous entrepreneurs lately, and I have to admit that their energy and focus are infectious. Some have already established their businesses while others are just getting started.

One thing that these folks all have in common isn't what you'd expect. It isn't a sense of unbreakable optimism. It isn't unshakable confidence. It isn't the drive to make loads of money someday or be their own boss. It has nothing to do with living the American Dream.

It is simply courage.

What strikes me about every single one of them is that they aren't going for the tried-and-true business model. I am not talking about franchises here. None of them is looking to copy existing businesses. They are all creating something new. Something different. Something no one (at least down here in South Carolina) has done before.

(And they're all giving me a pretty serious dose of "why didn't I think of that" syndrome to boot.)

What's also striking about them is the fact that they're all - without exception - fascinating people. Not in an excentric sort of way, not in a cosmopolitan jetsetter sort of way, but in a quiet, conversational, beautifully down-to-earth sort of way. These are people you enjoy having lunch with, just because they have interesting things to say. These are people you want to have drinks with, just because they are kindred spirits. They are well-adjusted, inquisitive, friendly, honest, candid people whose egos don't get in the way of everything they have to offer. They like what they like. They speak their minds freely. They are not restricted by conventions or hindered by other people's expectations.

They are willing to put everything on the line - their finances, their homes, their careers, their dreams - everything, because they believe in something that strongly. Because they are that determined to contribute something cool to the world. Something useful. Something good. Something that will either help businesses become more productive or make people's lives a little better.

Something they feel is needed, whatever that may be. A faster computer. A better business service. A stronger online community. A more memorable shopping experience. A more comfortable fabric. A sexier haircut. A lighter running shoe. A more delicious dish.

Their courage is fueled by a sense of purpose, not just financial gain.

How refreshing is that?

Taking a true leap of faith is - more often than not - a good measure of character. Leaps of faith are what you see on football fields with twenty seconds to go and just one last chance to take back the game. Leaps of faith happen during firefights when one shot or one grenade toss can mean the difference between victory or defeat. Life and death. Leaps of faith happen every day. Some people welcome them, and others shrink from them.

People and companies who never take leaps of faith play defense. People and companies who take occasional leaps of faith play offense. Think Apple. Think Starbucks. Think Newman's Own. Think Pixar. Think Michelin. Think HBO.

Sometimes, you have to take chances. You have to stand on your own. You have to risk it all, because not doing so and being haunted by regret later is just out of the question. And because great ideas are well worth fighting for.

True entrepreneurs are groundbreakers. Innovators. Rule breakers. Agents of change. They are leaders, even if they don't realize it. When it comes to business, they are the embodiment of courage.

Make no mistake: There's no glory in same as. There's no future in also in. Not really. Not unless you want to look down the barrel of a price war. Not unless you want to watch your company or career spike for a while, then die a fast, ugly death.

It takes courage to be great.

Just remember that fortune does indeed favor the bold.

Or as the French would say: "Qui risque rien n'a rien." (He who risks nothing has nothing.)

Have you taken a leap of faith lately? If so, how did you feel afterwards? How were you changed? How did surviving affect your confidence? Were any of the changes negative?

Think about this: What kind of effect do you think an occasional leap of faith would have on your company? On its direction? On its image? On its innovative spirit? On the energy driving it forward?

On its competitive advantage?

Think about it.

(Your competition is.)

Note to anyone catching this on an RSS feed: Sorry about the triple posting. I had trouble with my browser today. :)


Blog Elitism


I want you to read this blog post I found earlier today (highlighted in red). You may agree with it, or you may not... It doesn't really matter either way. What's important is that you read it and make up your own mind.

(Having said that, it kind of reminds me of this, which I think is pretty sad.)

"Here’s what I don’t like about the “professional” blogging space. And by “professional,” I don’t mean people who get paid to blog – I mean people who claim to be professionals in a certain professional field (say, marketing, identity development, customer experiences or WOMM).

Some of them are completely full of BS. They go on and on and on about what makes great companies and how to inspire greatness in your employees and customer experiences… but they have no real-life, hands-on experience to back it up. Nothing. Or, at the most, a very small, kind-of, draw a very weak line to success that suddenly makes them an expert in an entire category. And until you dig down and find out what really does or does not make them an “expert,” then you just don’t know.

I’m thankful there are the John Moore’s, Jackie Huba’s and a handful of others in the world who have real experience backing them up when they speak in public or on their blog. I listen to them because I know that they know what they’re talking about. They’ve lived it.

As I learned back when I was a copywriter: everyone’s a writer. And a lot of them can sound like they know what they’re talking about - especially when they write these very long, very verbose, paragraph after paragraph pontifications that sound smart. And maybe the writer is smart. But untested theories are just that until they are proven in the real world. With real clients. And real customers. But there’s no way of telling if they’re legit without asking."

- Spike Jones

Very few people out here in the blogosphere claim to be experts, yet a lot of them (not just a handful) have very interesting things to say. Just look at my blogroll: It's huge and it is going to continue to grow. Why? Because I discover fantastic new marketing blogs every week. Some of them are written by consultants and marketing professionals with impressive credentials, while others are written by code warriors, retail clerks and engineers who have zero formal experience in marketing. Interestingly, they're all good.

What's amazing to me is that the more blogs I discover, the more I realize that no single person has all the answers. (Okay... maybe Guy Kawasaki comes close, but whatever.) As a matter of fact, the more blogs I discover, the more genuine voices I run into, the more points of view I get exposed to, the clearer things become.

It's absolutely brilliant.

On any given day, I can choose to read the thoughts and ideas of dozens of people whose cultural, professional, and economic experiences are completely different from my own. They aren't all experts, but that's the point. Sometimes, the most relevant questions aren't asked by the PhD's. They're asked by the janitor or the mid-level manager or the first-time customer.

Sometimes, the most relevant observations come from the most unlikely places, which is precisely why they are so fascinating: They come from the trenches, not the board room. They come from people whose purpose in making them has nothing to do with profits or strategy or ego. These observations are real. Raw. Honest. There's no spin. They're our own experiences, only exposed by complete strangers. It's refreshing, empowering and validating. Finally, everyone has a voice: Customers, interns, students, observers, everyone... and the questions they are asking should have been answered twenty years ago. By the "experts".

Based on Spike's mode of thinking, I guess that "only a handful" of professional politicians should really be allowed to blog about politics. Only former Secretaries of State should be allowed to blog about international affairs. Maybe Nasa should put together a qualifying program for anyone wanting to blog about space travel or astronomy.

The new snob mantra: Only "experts" should have a voice.

Yeah. Brilliant.

I don't really see how working in advertising (or being a consultant, for that matter) has ever made anyone an expert in customer experience design, word-of-mouth-this, or identity-development-that. If anything, retail clerks and avid shoppers are the only real experts when it comes to the subject of customer experience. High-school kids are the only real experts when it comes to WOM. Here's the thing: Being an "expert" comes at a price - Most of your time has to be spent doing the very thing that makes you an expert, which means that you can't really become a professional expert: The more time you devote to talking about it, the less time you can devote to actually doing it. There is an opportunity cost there. If your job becomes talking rather than doing, then your expertise begins to shift.

This is why so many consultants become experts at being consultants rather than in the fields they get paid to be experts in. It's an easy trap to fall into.

In other words, the "experts" aren't necessarily who you think they are.

Ultimately, when it comes to blogs, the number of plaques someone has on their wall, how many initials and periods fall after their name, how many VP-this and client list-that their CV sports... none of those things really matter. What matters is the relevance of their message. That's it. Punto finale.

Blogging isn't about status or titles. Blogging is about sharing ideas. It doesn't matter if you're a ten-year-old kid in Sarajevo, a retired contractor in New Delhi, a mystery shopper in Toronto, or the founder of Google. Great ideas, observations and insights can come from anywhere, at any time.

Not only can they, they should. That's both the point and the beauty of this medium.

That is why it is always disappointing to run into self-righteous bloggers who think that their professional background or experience somehow entitles them to criticize other bloggers. Especially when they themselves don't know much at all about who they are throwing stones at to begin with. I just don't get it. It's the kind of myopic snobbism that just reeks of insecurity, ignorance and prejudice. (It kind of reminds me of those annoying "holier-than-thou" Bible-beaters who think that you and everyone but their little clique are going straight to hell... and looooooove telling you all about it.)

I'm not sure what fueled Spike's unfortunate rant. Maybe he is annoyed by the fact that he has to compete against an increasing number of bloggers whose posts might be better received than his. Maybe all that "noise" from bloggers without the right "qualifications" is interfering with his site's Technorati rankings? (Since Spike's blog serves the purpose of trying to sell something - not that there's anything wrong with it, perhaps he has more at stake than those of us whose only purpose in blogging is to... well... just share ideas. Especially the good ones.)

Or maybe it's just an ego thing. Who knows.

Here's what I do know: If you want real answers, you have to live and work in the real world. You can't just come down from your A-list wannabe's creative ivory tower once in a while and stick your nose up at what you don't like or fully understand. It just isn't very productive.

Just like it isn't very productive to tell people what they can or can't blog about.

But the great thing about the blogosphere is that he has the opportunity to speak his mind. He will even find people who will agree with him, and although I completely disagree with him on this particular point, I think it's great that he gets a chance to share his bile with the world. Heck, I am devoting this monster post just to him, purposely to put it in front of more eyeballs. How great is that?!

What Spike probably doesn't know, is that most of us who have been working out here in the real world of marketing - not just the hip world of marketing services agencies - have been getting face time with thousands of shoppers, product users, assembly line workers, after-market service specialists, delivery people, customer service reps, retailers, government bodies and every type of customer imaginable for years. We haven't looked at projects just from two or three angles. We've looked at them from every angle. We've followed products from the designers' cocktail napkin sketches, all the way to the recycling centers. We've listened to thousands upon thousands of people's reactions, perceptions, opinions and suggestions about everything from branding and expectations, to website usability and the customer-friendliness of product return policies. We've looked at the effect that different invoice designs have on how quickly payments are made. It's pretty interesting stuff.

While some people were busy focusing on how to sell their companies' creative services from the comfortable confines of their hip little headquarters, some of us were busy studying why and how companies fail, and why they succeed. In the field. Not just here, but overseas as well. And guess what? We'll still be doing it in some way shape or form in another ten years, and another ten, and another ten after that.

People like us don't strive to be experts. We simply strive to understand, learn, and share all of our observations and insights with whomever might benefit from even a sliver of what we've learned. Because it's in our blood, we tend to do it for free. (And maybe that's the rub.)

The term "expert" obviously means different things to different people, but all in all, we all pick and choose our own experts based on how well they fit our own experience and expectations. It's a highly subjective thing... like crowning your favorite guitarist as "the best guitarist" or your favorite painter as "the best painter". One man's "expert" is another man's... "who?" For people like Spike, "experts" seem to simply serve the purpose of validating his own views. (I believe "X", so if this respected superconsultant preaches "X", they're my expert of record.)

There are tons of other great voices out there, and most aren't "experts." That's a good thing, because it tends to take the ego out of the equation.

In the world of blogging, and increasingly in the business world in general, "experts" are finally starting to become irrelevant. Thank goodness for small miracles. Anyone with an opinion and decent research to back it up can be an expert. There's very little value there. What we need more of are well-rounded generalists whose intellectual scope isn't limited to... the same exact thing they have been doing every day for the last ten years.

When it comes to blogs, I couldn't care less if a blogger is a homemaker, a forty-year veteran of the conference circuit or the hippest CMO on the planet. If what they have to say rings true, if it is relevant, if it inspires readers to make positive changes in their organizations (0r their lives, even), if it challenges them to consider new ways of thinking about their business, if it opens new doors for them, then this big blogging experiment has been a success. Case in point: even a copywriter-turned-new business hound can make relevant posts about customer experience issues and WOMM. Aren't blogs grand?

Everyone has real experience to back up what they write about on their blogs... or discuss with their friends. Everyone. Anyone. That's the point.

There are no "untested theories" when it comes to marketing. Only case studies waiting to be discovered and shared. Some of us are out there doing the work. Others are simply content to wait for brilliant folks like John Moore and Jackie Huba to hold their hand and lead them safely there. The beauty of the blogosphere is that whichever path works best for you, you won't be left out if you don't want to be. Even here, all roads lead to Rome.

Maybe with time, Spike's horizons will broaden enough to help him gain a better appreciation for this medium and all that it has to offer. That would be swell. Until then, I guess the rest of us nobodies will just have to find the courage to go on blogging without his expert stamp of approval.

The world is an imperfect place, but we'll try to manage.


Dance with your customers.


The story of your relationship with your customers should read like what's going on in pho4me's photo (above):

You found each other in the wilderness.
You connected in some way.
You liked where things went from there.
You made music together.
You had a great time.
You became part of each other's worlds.

If you and your customers aren't dancing, if you aren't making music together, if you aren't truly part of each other's worlds, you should probably be asking yourself why.


Optimum Zen


Thanks to the folks at "This Is Broken" for the heads-up on yet another brilliant marketing idea for those of us who aren't satisfied with just plain old everyday zen: Optimum Zen! (It's zentastic.)

Hey, to be fair, you never know when you're going to need a little extra zen in your zen, you know? (Nothing says "I'm a real go-getter" better than a cereal that optimizes your inner harmony the way you optimize your financial reports and powerpoint presentations. Hoo-ah!)

I'm just hoping that the smart marketers at Nature's Path will also come out with Sugar Free Zen soon, for those of us who want to be able to enjoy zen but without all the extra calories this summer. (Zen always looks a whole lot better with six-pack abs, as you well know.) Alternate names: Zen Zero, Zen One, Zen Ultra, or Zen Minus.

Or maybe even Microwavable Zen, for days when some of us just don't have a lot of time on our hands and are forced to enjoy our morning zen on the go.

Or even Extreme Zen, for mornings when you need that monster boost of zenergy with every bite... although - and product managers, listen up - the zenplosion on the front of the box might have to get a little upgrade: Maybe some glossy lightning bolts and a HUGE volcanic erruption or something.



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Patterns Of Growth


Growth happens one little step at a time. There's a pace to it. A pattern. If you stand really still while you let it carry you, you can almost see it, just out of the blurry edges of your line of vision. It's kind of like pedaling on a bike, and then coasting for a few seconds to feel the pavement's feedback come up through your frame.

It's nice.

Look at that tree in Kristyanne's photo. It's a growth pattern. It's exactly the same as your company's. It's exactly the same as your brain, and the network of blood vessels and nerve pathways throughout your body.

It's exactly the same as your social networks, your website's architecture, your genetic history, and your spending habits. All healthy growth patterns look like this. (Unhealthy ones look like a really long and crooked stump.)

Forget about bar charts. This is the real deal.

Every little branch is a customer. A client. A project. Every big branch is a partner. A venture. An idea you've followed through.

The more big branches, the more little branches.

The more things you try, the more questions you ask, the more ideas you explore, the more challenges you tackle, the more great people you befriend, the more favors you do for fun, the more new experiences you seek out, the more skills you learn, the more chances you take, the more you screw up and try again, the more branches will grow.

Routine is not a recipe for growth. It ought not even be an option.

We've added a few very cool little branches to our tree this week (via the decidedly polymorphic F360), and I am seven kinds of excited about each one of them. There's no guarantee that any will grow into big branches, but that's just the point. I don't really want to know. I want to find out.

I was happy to learn today that a good number of folks from the just defunct Henderson Advertising agency have opted to forego looking for jobs at other ad agencies and are forming their own firms. That's the best news I've heard all week. Cheers to every one of you who chose that path. You've just made the best decision of your respective careers.

Welcome to life 2.0.

It's been a long week for a lot of people, myself included. Weeks like this are great tests, on so many levels. They test your resolve. They test your endurance. They test the people around you. They test your tolerance for everything from some people's arrogance to the self-righteousness they try and pass off as wisdom, authority or even good will. These are the weeks when everyone's true character is revealed to you, when even the most well articulated piles of bullshit can't be passed off as anything but what they are anymore, and when those who bring nothing worthwhile to the table can no more hide from the sting of their own irrelevance than conceal it from everyone who hadn't yet noticed it. These are the weeks when the strongest of your branches begin to grow, and your understanding of the path they will carve for themselves takes on a zen-like clarity.

Everyone I met with this week, everyone whose hand I shook, everyone with whom I shared a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, or the corner of a couch or table or doorway, thank you. If you are reading this blog, you know who you are. You're all branches now. Some personal, others professional, some both. Every last one of you. I have to pinch myself every ten minutes to make sure I didn't just dream the last five days.

They were that good.

I think that after today, I'm going to take a couple of days off to recharge my batteries, enjoy some sunshine, hang out with my impossibly cool little family and as many of the amazing friends and partners in crime that I have been lucky enough to meet in recent weeks, months and years, and count my blessings. The next two days are going to be as nice as the rest of 2006 is going to be absolutely insane.

I am the luckiest guy on both fronts. You have no idea.


Welcome to Dachau.


File that sign under... oh, I don't know... what were they thinking?

Thanks to the folks at Strategic Name Development for the link, and the brief little note:

"I understand that times have changed, but I think it's reasonable to say that after World War II, no one would imagine that there would be a sign saying Welcome to Dachau."
Um... yeah.

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The Delusion Bug


Here's a sobering little bit of reality:

"A study by Bain & Company found that 80 percent of companies surveyed believed that they delivered a "superior experience" to their customers. But, when customers were asked to indicate their perceptions of the experiences they have in dealing with companies, they rated only 8 percent of companies as truly delivering a superior experience (James Allen, Frederick F. Reichheld and Barney Hamilton, The Three "Ds" of Customer Experience, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, accessed Nov. 7, 2005). Do you sense just a little bit of disconnect?"
(Thanks to John Winsor, who caught this on Seth Godin's blog, who himself had wisely nipped it from Jim Barnes.)

8% vs. 80%.


So... seriously. What group are you in? Maybe it's time you really found out.


For Shame?


Yesterday, a friend who works in the advertising world asked me - out of respect for the agency's legacy - not to blog about the Henderson Advertising debacle. His motives are just and noble, and I completely understand where he is coming from, and why he's probably a little annoyed with me today. Henderson Advertising did some pretty cool things in its time. It was the grandaddy of all of Greenville's existing advertising agencies (or at least their godfather, once upon a time). It got the ball rolling in this part of the country, back when the real estate now occupied by BMW North America and Michelin North America headquarters were just cow pastures.

And some very cool people worked there over the years.

I get it. I empathize. And I'm not here to throw stones or rub anybody's nose in their poopoo. The fact of the matter is that I don't have the inside scoop as to why Henderson Advertising abruptly closed its doors this week. I only know bits and pieces of what happened. I couldn't dissect Henderson Advertising's fall even if I wanted to, which I don't.


(Yeah, there's always a but.)

But... the fact remains that Henderson Advertising did close its doors this week, as abruptly as... how did I phrase it yesterday? As abruptly s the snap of a guillotine blade? (Something like that.)

To understand Greenville based Henderson Advertising's relevance to this blog's discussion, you have to understand that they were the first agency ever outside of New York and Chicago to be named Agency Of The Year by Advertising Age Magazine. They used to be big, the way churches are big down in this part of the country. They used to be the standard by which other agencies were judged. They used to be the big dizzle.

Back in 1980.

What's interesting to me is that these guys were as big and cool as it gets once. They owned this market. Heck, they created this market. Back in 1996, they were still at the top of their game... but here we are, ten years later, and they're gone.

Ten years. That's all it took for a giant to lose its grip on the very market it created and tumble to its death.

Here's my question: If ten years ago, a time traveler from the future had come to Henderson Advertising's principals with today's Greenville News, what would they have done differently from that moment forward?

More to the point, if a stranger wearing really bad fashion suddenly materialized in your board room with news that in exactly ten years, your doors would abruptly close, that your only statement to the press would be "We have ceased operations and closed our door effective (enter date here). We are conducting an orderly liquidation but not bankruptcy. And that's all I can tell you because of ongoing litigation at this time," what would you do? (The statement - with the actual date - is the one made by Henderson Advertising Chairman and Chief Exec Ralph Callahan.)

What would you change? What would you do to avoid finding yourself in that situation, just ten years from now?

Fact: Companies don't crash and burn overnight. Not textile mills, not car manufacturers, not energy companies, not banks, and certainly not marketing and advertising firms. These things happen over time, one bad decision at a time, one bad hire at a time, one uninspired move at a time. There's a lot to be learned from Henderson Advertising's fall. There's a lot to be learned from what many agencies of its size have been dealing with over the last ten years - namely loss of revenue, client erosion and diminished relevance. (And no, TiVo didn't kill the big advertising agencies.)

The big agency model which worked so well in the 1980's can't work across the board in 2006 anymore. Not every store in town can be Target, and the lesson is that not every store in town should be. Big agencies, like all big companies, may be able to handle the logistics of large scale projects, but the downside of that capability is that growth increases the distance between an agency's core talent and its clients. More and more layers are created. Don't kid yourselves into thinking that those layers are really links in a chain. They aren't. They're layers. They're walls. That problem gets compounded by the fact that instead of fostering relationships with clients by nurturing a core team of client advisors who truly represent their agency in every way (yes, I am talking about account executives) the big agency model prefers instead to toss new throw-away twenty-somethings at them every six to eighteen months.

There's a lot more that's wrong with the big agency model - except, that is, for the very small number of agencies who really should be big. Most agencies just can't survive by following this model anymore, and Henderson Advertising is perhaps the first of many casualties to come in the next decade. Times are changing. Agencies will either adapt or crash. It's that simple.

So... if you knew that in exactly ten years, your dream would come crashing down, if someone gave you that heads-up, if you had a chance to change the future and turn things around, what would you do?

Well guess what? Someone just did. It doesn't matter of you're Microsoft or Buddy's Garage. The writing's on the wall. You have ten years to turn yourself into the company that you know you should be. The company you'll need to be in order to still be relevant. If you blow this off, 2016 will mark the end of your great little business adventure.

This isn't something you can leave to chance or put off until your schedule looks a bit more manageable. Those ten years are going to go by fast. You don't want to find yourself in a hole with only three years to go. You don't want to wait until your lawyers or accountants tell you there's no light at the end of the tunnel you've dug for yourself. You don't want to go out like Henderson Advertising did.

Your next ten years start now. Today. Every choice you've made until this moment is irrelevant now. Water under the bridge. History. What matters now is what you do with the time that you have left.

Over the next few weeks, I will be looking at the ways that great companies screw up. How they plant the seeds of their own demise... And how some companies, by choosing not to make these mistakes, plant the seeds of their own success.

If Henderson Advertising finds its way in some of these discussions, please don't take it the wrong way. They're just the most tragic example I can come up with of what can happen to even the best of us when we fall asleep at the wheel: Unlike other fallen companies like ENRON (which was big but not so great), Henderson Advertising really was great once. That, more than any other factor, is why their name will come up often.


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Henderson Advertising 1946-2006


There are lots of people out there who would love to sell us on the idea that advertising is dead. Don't fall for it. Advertising is far from dead. As a matter of fact, as long as there is commerce, advertising will never die.

But Advertising is changing, and by this, I don't mean the medium itself. What I am talking about is the Advertising infrastructure. The framework of the industry.

Ten years ago, the "big agency" model ruled the industry. The bigger, the better. Clients fell for the whole "size matters" proposition. The bigger the agency, the bigger the clients, the bigger the talent, the bigger the impact on their market. There was status involved too. Think "My agency is bigger than yours" or "my agency kicks your agency's butt".

To some extent, the same mentality still exists today, (habits are hard to break) but thanks to the growth of small-to-medium agencies and creative studios, thanks to the democratization of creative and collaborative tools, things are starting to change...

While it's true that accounts in the 8+ figures require the kind of operational capability that often comes in numbers, it was always an iffy proposition. Consider the big agency model:

In order to service big accounts, you have to be big too. You need big digs. Big staff. Lots of overhead. Big accounts don't ask you to work on big projects every month. Some months, you get your money's worth. Other months, you're twenty people overweight and they need to go.

The advertising world's ugly little habit of hiring and then firing people en masse has been compounded over the years to allow it to become part of the culture. There's an agency here in Greenville whose staff rotates ever six months. It's kind of a joke, really. And it's very sad... but the bigger the agency, the more common this practice tends to be.

It's all about economics - I understand that - but you have to balance quality and quantity. The equation, in this and many other cases, is completely out of whack.

Let me just say this: A revolving door staffing policy is not conducive to building a brand - or producing consistently great work. Hiring is expensive. Firing is expensive. Training is expensive. Besides, it reeks of exploitation. As a matter of fact, it reminds me of every cheap-ass sales organization I've ever run into. The It's all about numbers mentality is as myopic as it gets.

But we'll get back to numbers in a bit.

What matters most is that this kind of model sucks for the clients. Instead of pairing them with account executives whose mission it is to help them make the right decisions, big agencies tend to hook them up with what essentially amounts to salespeople. If they can sell, they get to keep their jobs. If they don't sell, they're gone. They don't matter all that much because there are three hundred more kids just like them waiting in the wings.

Before you take offense to that last paragraph, let me just say this: There are LOTS of great account executives out there... but if you're one of them, you're part of a very exclusive minority.

Anyway. I can say this because I've been the client. I was the client for over ten years, and it taught me everything agencies do wrong. Believe me when I tell you that watching how advertising agencies do business from the outside-in is a daily head-shaking exercise. Most advertising professionals have never been in the client's shoes, so they have no idea. The disconnect there is one of the widest have ever encountered in any discipline and any industry.

This disconnect is a direct result of the Advertising world's bulimic model when it comes to staffing. Connecting with your clients isn't a crapshoot. It isn't a numbers' game. It's a commitment, in the truest sense of the term. It's a partnership.

See, when you just throw inexperienced kids at your clients (and I use the term "kids" loosely) you are devaluing your brand as an agency. You're saying... our cool offices are more important than your project. Our status is more important than the results we can provide. We need to shave some digits in our budget, and this is where we chose to do it.

Trust me. You aren't fooling anybody.

Every time you do this, the value of the services you provide drops a little. Your credibility as an agency begins to suffer. Your relationship with your clients fades and sours. One day, your clients cross a threshold when they realize that... wait a minute. This stuff is expensive, and it isn't really doing much for us... so let's just buy what we need, and just spend the rest of our budget on something more concrete. Or let's just do a lot of it ourselves.

That's how agencies that have ballooned up to 150 employees suddenly find themselves in the red.

In the end, it really is a numbers game: The cash flow has to be positive. But instead of rebuilding an agency the right way, by bringing in a core of superquality employees, by redirecting your focus to replicating the fantastic work and service of the good old days, when there were only 50 or 60 people in their offices, most agencies just fire a batch of people and replace them with the next truckload of warm bodies.

The way I see it, that's kind of like trying to cure a heroin habit by buying your next kit from a different street corner.

The other lousy way, apparently, is to just cook the books and pretend everything is fine. (More on that later this week.)

It isn't to say that the age of the big agency is over. There will probably always be a need for big agencies. Companies like GM and Microsoft and Walmart are probably too big for a twenty-person firm to handle, but most big firms won't be around in fifteen years. One by one, most of them are going to start imploding. It's a simple matter of economics. The tools are here now for smaller agencies and studios with far less overhead and a stronger focus on quality, talent and results to take over.

Call it natural selection. Call it evolution. Call it whatever you want. The world is changing, and the same-old crap that most businesses have been forced to settle for for the last twenty years is going to start to vanish fast.

It's about damn time too.

Over the next few days and weeks, you'll get a chance to hear more about the fall of the mighty Henderson Advertising. (Okay, maybe they were mighty only in South Carolina, but still.) There's a lot to be learned from what led such a once-great advertising and marketing firm to crash and burn so spectacularly and painfully this week.

We're talking about a terminal crash here.

We're talking about one of the most well-known agencies in the South-East closing its doors as abruptly as the snap of a guillotine blade yesterday, pretty much without warning.

We're talking about well over 100 people being put out of work overnight, and dozens of clients struggling to figure out what they're going to do next.

Yes. Not a textile mill. Not a car parts factory. An advertising agency.

What happened to them could very well happen to every large agency in the country... and to some extent, it already is.

For now, my heart goes out to everyone who lost their jobs yesterday. Henderson going down the way it did just sucks.

The good news is this: If you have talent, if youre heart is in the right place, if you really want to help companies succeed, there's a whole world of untapped opportunity for you out there. There's life beyond the old "big agency" model.

And from where I'm standing, it's pretty damn cool.

(We'll be back tomorrow with more.)

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What's your zipcode, baby?


photo by monamiclea

Someone threw an interesting question my way last week. I was birthday shopping for my in-laws at this little restaurant supply place in downtown Greenville, when I struck up a conversation with the owner. Nice engaging guy, friendly, helpful, etc. After a few minutes, we started talking about what I do, and of course, I brought up f360, which is my little pet project of the moment. (Yes, BrandBuilder is only a small piece of the puzzle.)

The first thing that he asked me in regards to f360 was this: "Where are you guys located?"

And it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: We don't have a fancy looking studio downtown (or close to it) like most established creative agencies in Greenville. We don't have a lobby with a coffee bar. We don't have a pile of awards three-feet deep shoved under our spiral stairwell. We aren't renting space in one of downtown's skyscrapers. We don't have our own building and our own parking lot and giant signage visible for miles. We don't even have a conference table. (Oh, the horror.)

Sure, we have an address, but mostly for practical purposes... like... snail mail and package deliveries, and doing actual work. It's a space designed for production rather than a space designed to impress potential clients. Other than that, we're mobile. We're virtual. Our address is wherever our laptop happens to be at the moment. From 8:00am to 10:30am, we may be at client ABC's offices to talk about their next project. From 11:00am to 1:00pm, we may be at client XYZ's store, working on their website content and interacting with their core customers. From 2:00pm to 4:00pm, we may be at any number of locations directing a photo shoot. From 4:30pm to 6:00pm, we may set up shop at a coffee shop to catch up with emails and get some real work done. From 7:00pm to 9:00pm, we may be at the office or at home, working on designing a print ad or a proposal, or sorting through 900 images for a 10:00am deadline. Or we might be in St. Paul. Or New York City. Or Verona, Italy. (Air travel isn't a weekly thing for us, but it happens every couple of months or so.)

Being mobile makes us efficient. We don't need a receptionist. We don't need a secretary. We don't need a janitor. We don't need an IT guy. We don't need to hire green account executives every six months to throw at our unsuspecting clients in the hopes that they'll sell them more services so we can pay for it all. We keep things purposely small. Our size and low overhead allows us to select the kinds of clients we want to work with and always produce exactly the kind of work they need without fleecing them. It already works really well for the consulting side of our business, so we thought we would try it with f360. We never expected to work as well as it has.

Ten years ago, the technology required to be able to function this way wasn't there for the kind of work f360 does. It's here now.

We're talking about laptops with big battery life and fast software tools. We're talking about wi-fi and USB ports and cell phones. Home offices and email and airports. We're talking about eliminating overhead and focusing instead on convenience and efficiency. In our world, a trendy looking office in posh downtown building would be nice, but is completely irrelevant. We'd never be there during business hours.

Think speed and flow.

Think new digs every few hours keeps our minds fresh.

Think spending all day in our own offices is hardly the best way to immerse ourselves in our client's respective cultures. (It's more of a recipe for getting stuck in our own.)

One of my favorite thoughts dealing with what f360 is all about comes from Bruce Mau, and it's this: "Creativity isn't device-dependent." In other words, you don't need the latest and best word processor to write the Great American Novel. You don't need the latest and best digital SLR camera to shoot awesome photos. You don't need a two million dollar studio to become the next Picasso, Dali or Matisse.

Following the same vein, the quality of an agency, studio or consultancy's work isn't fancy digs dependent.

... Or at least, that's what I thought until last Friday. The question, as I mentioned before, hit me like a ton of bricks: "Where are you guys located?"

The truth is that your image, as a business, does have a lot to do with where you are located. Locally, saying something like "we have a studio downtown, just off Main Street, in the West End" means a whole lot more than saying "in Simpsonville, in that little brown building right behind the McDonald's" (not that it's where we are, but you get the point).

Our address may be irrelevant to us, but yes, it is bound to be relevant to lots of people whose experience is different from our own. It matters. Just like the design of your business cards matters. Just like the design of your website matters. Just like the clothes you wear and the way you answer the phone and the way you smile matters. It all matters.

Luckily, we do have a space downtown, so we can give potential clients the answer they want to hear, but I guess we will have to break down eventually and get our hands on something bigger, more spacious, trendier, hipper, more in line with our identity as a company. As a studio. As a den of creative mayhem.

Yep, we're going to need sexy digs before long. Maybe even an intern or two. I guess we should have known it would eventually come to this.

But first things first: Finishing our website, which should finally happen sometime this week. (Thank goodness for small miracles.) I'll post a link when it's all done... (or if you're super curious and impatient, you can always try to Google f360 and see where you end up. Tip: We're not a Ferrari dealership.)

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